George Lucas Educational Foundation
A stack of four notebooks are on a classroom desk with three pencils lying on top of them. A blurred out chalkboard is shown in the background.
Teaching Strategies

Interactive Notebooks: No Special Hardware Required

Here's an old-school interactive tool: a spiral-bound notebook set up as a simple, functional system for students to create, write, and explore ideas all in the same place.
  • read later Bookmark

Before I started using interactive notebooks, I got by, but barely. I'd make multiple copies of every handout for students who were constantly losing theirs. Students would take notes sometimes, and sometimes they wouldn't. All of my grades focused on the finished products, never on the process. I had few or no opportunities to explore the texts that we were studying in class using visual, logical, intrapersonal, or interpersonal learning styles. If I wanted students to write, I had to collect every page that they wrote, and I inevitably had a stack of unread notebook pages on my desk at the end of every day. Classes were discussion all day, every day, with me as the main source of energy for that discussion.

It was an exhausting mess.

I've been using interactive notebooks in my classes since 2005, and every single teaching resource that I create fits this format. I could never go back to teaching without them.

A Simple Yet Effective System

My interactive notebooks are simple spiral-bound notebooks into which students glue or tape my handouts. It's not especially fancy, and there are no pop-up cut outs or pages to color in. It's just a simple, functional way for students to create, write, and explore ideas all in the same place.

By introducing interactive notebooks into my classes. . .

  • I've gained a system for classroom management and organization.
  • Every lesson takes advantage of a different learning style.
  • Students have much more ownership of the entire learning process.
  • While my students write almost every day in class, I collect that writing only once every month or two.

Most importantly, I'm not (quite) as worn out at the end of the day.

This is how my system works.

1. The notebook setup is fairly quick and very important. And it's worth it to make sure that we are all (literally) on the same page.

  • Students make a cover page with their name and class period.
  • The table of contents lists any handouts or information that they might need later on.
  • We number every page, and then we make sure that we all have the same right and left.

And that's it.

2. I encourage more than one learning style. When I use interactive notebooks, I have a daily reminder to diversify my lesson plans and focus on more than one learning style.

The left side is always something creative. Most often, it's writing -- five-minute freewrites to start or end the class. Sometimes it's for charts, drawings, or notes on a group activity.

The right side is for objective material. This is where they'll put any notes from the class discussion or (extremely rare) lecture. It's also where they'll put questions that they complete in groups, with partners, or on their own. If there's going to be a test on the material, they only need to to study the right-hand pages.

3. I have a few tricks for managing the day-to-day process. For example, I keep a running list of page numbers and assignments visible in the classroom so that students don't have to ask me 20 times a day, "What page is that on?" (Not that it completely stops them.)

Another one of my key tools is a stamp. Whenever work is due, I go around the room and take a quick look at all of the students' notebooks, maybe reading one or two answers just as a spot check. If the work is finished on time, they get a stamp. Then, when I grade the notebooks, I simply count the stamps. If they have them all, then they get 100 points on their homework grade.

4. Grading the notebooks is fairly painless. It's actually quite fun at times. I first make a quick pass to check for missing or unfinished work. Fifty percent of the notebook grade is an overall grade, and I take off points for missing or incomplete pages.

Then comes the fun part. The other 50 percent of their notebook grade is based on just four pages. Students choose three for me to grade, and I choose one of those. They get to show me their best work, I get to learn what they like and what they're proud of, and it feels like a conversation with each individual student. I'm not grading the same page over and over, and ultimately, I find that students often do their best work in their notebook where there is little pressure. (Why they freeze when they read the word "essay" is a whole other topic.)

A Cure for Exhaustion?

One of the great pieces of advice that I've received as a teacher is that the students should be more tired than I am by the end of class. I still feel exhausted at times, and sometimes my classroom still feels like a mess, but by using interactive notebooks, I get to preserve a little more of myself for the end of the day.

Where do you expend the most energy in your classes? Would interactive notebooks help you become a less exhausted teacher? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

About the Author
Share This Story
  • read later Bookmark

Comments (26) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (26) Sign in or register to comment

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

I do two separate grades, one for on-time and one for completion. So a student could have a zero for stamps, meaning that none of the work was done when it should have been, but technically a 100 for the notebook. Unfortunately, I think that they are more likely to copy the work from someone else when they do it late, but I have had some students who do a great job but get it done late. They also usually learn how incredibly painful it is to make up all that work when they could have easily finished it in class--and often once is enough to teach them that lesson.
In terms of the delay, I guess that as an English teacher who reads thousands of pages per year, I am always behind. You could easily keep track of work that has been done on-time in a grade book or something similar.
I also do reading logs, essays, creative writing, class participation... the notebook is usually around 20 percent of their grade, so not exactly a make-or-break grade.

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

Unfortunately, I think that another drawback to having the work done online is that cheating involves just opening a new window. (Did you know that for example there are whole websites that have the answers to every question in every math textbook?) I'm not saying that they can't cheat if they really want to, but I certainly don't want to make it more convenient for them to find the answers somewhere else.

ValentineG's picture

You are correct there is something about the students having that tangible object. I know from other teachers that they hear from past students saying, I used my INB from 8th grade science to help me with my chemistry test, etc. This is something that may not be doable with on-line INBs once they leave your class. As for the cheating, its going to happen, especially for those that really don't want to do the work. As the saying goes if there is a will there is a way.

Yaa Adoma's picture
Yaa Adoma
Rethink education/teaching/learning in Mali; aiming to change the statistics, one child at a time.

I love this idea, especially in places where internet access is a luxury (1MB at a cost of about $849 per month!). Is it at all possible to see a photo of what the pages look like; it would help me picture it, because! really would like to use this idea. Thanks!

Chandler M's picture


I am currently a student teacher and I love the idea of implementing interactive notebooks when I have my own science classroom next year. I definitely feel as if I spend most of my energy in the classroom getting students settled and focused at the beginning of class. I also spend so much of my energy grading 120 assignments multiple times per week. I therefore really love the idea of an interactive notebook. I feel as if it could be great tool to use as a "Do Now" when students first come into the classroom, giving them a reason to settle down. It also seems great in the way that you can grade most of students' work in the classroom by going around and checking their responses for a few questions.

I have seen some examples of interactive notebooks before, but I really love the way that you have the left side of the page be a creative page and the right side be an objective page. I think the creative page could be a great place for those "Do Now" prompts to take place by asking students to write their opinions/thoughts on different scientific topics. Do you think that doing something like this would be a good use for the creative page? I also have one question for the objective pages...does this page always consist of students writing their own notes on it? Or does it sometimes consist of handouts that you give to students to glue in?

I am really excited to implement interactive notebooks like this with scientific content! Thanks for giving me some new ideas!


Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

Chandler, yes to everything you say here! And here are a few more tips... I usually have the same activity at the beginning of class every single day. For me, it's a MUG shot sentence (basically like a grammar exercise) and it is on the same page in the notebook for a while until we finish it and add another. I think that not having to explain what we're doing first is huge. So I just say, "Go ahead and take out your MUG shots. They're on page 38 of your notebook and we are on the fourth sentence. You should find six mistakes today" and they know what that means pretty early on.
Yes also to not grading 120 copies of the same exact thing. The other piece to the checking is that you can kind of push kids to do more on the spot--like, "Hmmm, I don't think I'm going to stamp that yet. Could you add some more details on number 5?"
In terms of the right side, I don't do much content, but when I do have a handout like on how to cite a quote or whatever, yes, that would go on the right side. (And sometimes I mess it up too, but I'm consistent enough that they get it.)
In terms of the creative stuff, I'd think that for science, you could give freewrites--what are some environmental issues that you wish we could solve-- or diagrams or comics to explain concepts like how cells multiply. (Sorry, it's totally a stretch for me to come up with science examples.) Anyway, when you have that blank page staring at you, it's a good reminder to do something in the lesson that is application or creative or somehow not just passive note-taking.
Love the questions--thanks so much for the great comment!

AJ Teach's picture

Hello everyone! Interactive notebooks are awesome! They encourage students to write daily, promote organization, encourage students to tap into their creative side, gives students ownership of their learning, works as a reference with unlimited access, and gives students the ability to monitor their own academic progress. I teach first grade EIP students, and it is a very useful tool during parent/ teacher conferences.

Stephanie Scott's picture

Some of my short assignments I have the students cut out, fill-out, and turn in for a spot grade. (usually something visual and easy to grade)
I can see if they're getting it or what the misconceptions are. I then return so they can fasten into their notebooks.

aunttammie's picture
Ninth grade English teacher in a Catholic High School

I'm curious as to why you use spirals instead of loose-leaf notebooks. It seems like the pasting and taping would be cumbersome, and loose-leaf much easier to manage.

Laura L's picture
Laura L
Learning coach for South Carolina Connections Academy

In my experience, three ring binders get squashed, papers fall or tear out, they accidentally come open and then you have a unit or a semester's worth of work in a fruitbasket turnover on the floor. Also, their triangular shape often leads to sliding, even when you alternate direction stacking them.

There is no perfect solution, but sprial bound notebooks tend to have different problems. Yes, they are less flexible in size, and taping things in can be messy, but pages usually stay where you put them, in that order, and they are less bulky.

There is no reason not to use whatever you think is best (even composition books, except those aren't standard paper size).

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.